Under the radar: Marco’s days as a missile tracking site remembered
Many people have fond memories of their time on Marco Island, and Randy Gilmore is one of them. But the Marco he remembers, from the year he spent managing the missile tracking site at the southern tip of Marco’s beach, was vastly different from the island today.
As facility manager, Gilmore supervised the 50 employees at the Air Force’s radar tracking base. Although they were working for the military and supervised out of Eglin AFB in the Florida panhandle, Gilmore, like all the engineers and technicians on Marco Island, was a civilian.
His tenure at the station ran from January 1960 to January 1961. Close observers of local history will note the significance of the year 1960. On Sept. 10 that year, Hurricane Donna, still the most destructive storm ever to impact Southwest Florida, tore ashore, crossing the Florida Keys and making landfall out of the Gulf of Mexico for maximum devastation.
Remarkably, the tracking site survived relatively unscathed, said Gilmore, although “we had to chop our way along the road” removing numerous downed trees to reach the site after the storm. The mobile home where Randy and his wife Hattie were staying in East Naples was waist deep in water from the storm surge. They weren’t there, though – they rode out Donna at an employee’s house in Naples.
Now 87, Gilmore spent his career with Vitro Corp of America, after serving in the U.S. Army as a radio interceptor in the Army security agency, a forerunner of the National Security Agency. He was in on the dawn of the computer era, working on massive mainframe machines.
“There’s a picture I’ll send you of me at the console of a Univac computer. It was 26-ft. wide and 60 ft. long,” he said, and it wouldn’t have had more than a fraction of the computing power of a typical iPhone today.
Vitro Services had the operation and maintenance contract for a series of radar-based missile tracking stations up and down the Florida coastline. According to Marco Island’s unofficial historian and local attorney Craig Woodward, they tracked the performance of missiles such as the Matador, GAM-72, Quail, GAM-77 (known as the "Hound Dog").
The site included a radar building with one fixed and two mobile radar antennas, a telemetry building, a weather building, a microwave building, a maintenance building, and a tower that was later moved to Indian Hill to provide elevated views of the island.
The missile tracking site was likely responsible for regular electric power reaching Marco Island, said Woodward.
On December 1, 1957 the Air Force formed the Air Proving Ground Center at Eglin Air Force Base in the panhandle and created the "Eglin Gulf Test Range" which included Marco Island's radar checking the missiles as they traveled down the west coast of the peninsula. After the Cuban revolution, the site was also repurposed to monitor the possibility of ballistic missiles carrying warheads heading up from Cuba.
“The story is that in October of 1962 as part of the Cuba missile crisis, Khrushchev agreed to remove the Cuba missiles in turn for closing the Missile Tracking Station on Marco and (also) some military establishments in Turkey,” said Woodward.
The island the engineers came to was barely inhabited. Like everyone else, they had to access it by the State Road 92 swing bridge, years before the Jolley Bridge was constructed and before what is now the Stan Gober Memorial Bridge replaced the old wooden structure near Goodland. While agriculture flourished briefly at the beginning of the last century, it was long gone by that point.
Marco Island was still largely wild, with mangrove estuaries and sandy pine uplands, where homes and condominiums stand today, said Curtis Bostwick, born on Marco Island, in 1938, and just unexpectedly deceased a month ago.
“There used to be a lot of agriculture on Marco,” said Bostwick, “with two clam canneries operating and a pineapple farming operation. But the clams disappeared, and after 1910, the railroad came through and pineapples from Cuba flooded the market.”
The access road to the radar site was later used as a landing strip when development began, with the “buy and fly” programs that brought prospective homeowners here, and the land itself was used as a concrete plant casting seawall sections, and the most scenic construction staging area imaginable.
“Back then, it was just gopher tortoise holes and rattlesnakes,” said Gilmore. Not a single condo stood along the beach. And while just about everyone who has lived in this area for a long time has “if only” stories of the vast profits they missed out on by not buying land for a song, Gilmore said that was never a consideration, or even an option, for him.
“The Collier companies owned the entire island,” he said (although property owned by the family of Capt. Bill Collier – no relation – remained unobtainable). The Collier interests did try, unsuccessfully, to sell their entire holdings to the State of Florida as a nature preserve for $1 million, but the state balked at the price.
This is ironic. The Mackle Brothers later sold the missile tracking site for $14.9 million in 1980, when they had to raise cash to reimburse lot buyers whose land had been declared undevelopable by the federal government. Now the condominiums of Cape Marco which rose on the site carry multi-million dollar price tags for one unit.
One piece of unexploded ordinance that flew by the station, said Woodward, is on display at the Smallwood Store, and can be viewed just by driving down to Chokoloskee. Fishermen used to be out in the Gulf and see missile parts splash down in the water.
“How crazy is that? You’re fishing, and a missile flies by,” he said.